Ed Carroll and Vita Gelūnienė live in Kaunas (Lithuania) where they have been exploring ways of creating community art for several years. When Ed sent me some photos of their latest event I asked if I might share them on this blog, partly because they give a glimpse of what’s happening in a part of Europe that isn’t widely known in the landscape of participatory art, and partly because the images offer such a resonant feel of midwinter celebration, ancient and contemporary, elemental and human. I also sense Welfare State’s ideas and aesthetics, spreading unseen like rhizomes, relevant still because their own roots are in ancient, anarchic popular visions the need of which people are starting to feel again.
Ed and Vita have written this brief account of this evening, which is the latest in a series of – what, happenings? – they’ve helped create in their community.
In the centre of Šančiai is a wasteland called the ‘Cabbage Field’, the final fragment of a vast area used as a military territory from the mid-19th century until 1993. Over the last four years a group of community artists and leaders who formed the Lower Sanciai Community Association worked to reclaim this land. In December 2017, the Association joined the Council of Europe Faro Convention Network, a solidarity platform working with local cultural heritage and making it a resource for citizens to create commons, narratives and cooperation. This is the second year the group organized a festive community gathering called the Balsamic Poplar, which takes its name from the oldest tree.
In the process of preparing for this event, local leaders and community artists organized more than 20 open art workshops. The result of these workshops became a two-hour coproduction led by children, people with disabilities, the local circus and library as well as community members. Over 200 people came and were met by resident Field Fairies who drew people to the shadow theatre on the specially adapted ‘Dream Bus’. The shadow theatre used the local library for rehearsal involving children and parents. After the performance, creative workshops in shadow making attracted some; others preferred to watch the newly placed crib into the belly of the Balsamic poplar, while others were engaged in making and sharing waffles and doughnuts from an open fire oven. People brought in new books to donate to the library!
A band of samba drummers led the crowd on a journey around five specially constructed circular screens to watch a unique performative light animation produced produced by artists from Psilicon Theatre and the local Baltic circus. Finally, the night ended with a fire sculpture created by a local resident of the Cabbage Field.
“The animators of the Cabbage Field have worked for a few years to mobilize community and to create this festive tale. Many had criticized them for what they were doing in this wasteland. But in spite of it, the community kept on working and is going to make more events attended by children, neighbours and even those who never heard about the space. People were happy and joyous and this mood was made by the magic of the faith in community and Christmas spirit.” Kauno Diena newspaper 2017-12-18
Thanks to Ed and Vita for sharing this work, and to the photographers Darius Petrulis and Regina Sabuliene. I hope to be able to visit the project next year and learn more about their experience at first hand.
PS Ed Carroll has long been involved with Blue Drum, working for cultural rights in Ireland and the Legacy Papers, an project to document the origins and development of community art, including interviews with people like Mary Jane Jacob, Arlene Goldbard and many others.
This guest post was written by Julia Rone, a Bulgarian friend who has been researching social activism in the wake of the financial crisis. She describes how the Spanish activist group, XNET, are prosecuting fraudulent bankers and politicians in the courts and in the theatre. While the legal proceedings continue, ‘Become a Banker’, has been seen by almost 10,000 people in Barcelona, Madrid, Valencia, A Coruña, Girona and Tàrrega, helping ensure that the truth is understood and remembered. (It’s also available online, in a version with English subtitles.) The story is not over, but through this citizens theatre, XNET are keeping attention on the true causes of the hardship undergone by Spanish people.
Banking, creative activism and theatre: the Hazte Banquero story
Imagine being one of the most powerful bankers of Spain. Imagine experiencing the financial crisis, witnessing millions of people going to the streets after losing their savings, their mortgages, their future. See them shouting, marching, occupying. And then imagine someone leaking to the public all your professional emails with details of lavish spending and misdeeds. Imagine a court trial and someone brave enough (artistically and politically) to make a data-based theatre play out of all this.
The play Hazte Banquero (Become a Banker)is ‘a true story and, as such, it is dramatic but, most of all, it is absurd and atrociously comical’, as the producers from X-net describe it. XNET is an activist collective that deals with topics such as free culture, technopolitics, network democracy, and citizen journalism. They have been very active ever since the Indignados protests in Spain, and this is how I got to know their work. But when I entered Teatre El Musical in Valencia to watch their play I had my doubts about what I was going to see. Would it be one of the many naive and moralistic tales of bankers that flooded Hollywood screens after the crisis? Would I have to like it just because I agree with the political message? As a social movements researcher, I’m used to exploring citizen action on the streets and on squares, on mail lists and Facebook pages – but theatre and social movements? The combination made me uncomfortable.
And yet, from the very first moment, the play engaged me, dispersed my doubts and filled the empty space with data. Director Simona Levi and the XNET team read thousands of leaked emails to choose the most striking ones and set them as drama. With the help of a big screen, interactive graphics, and several great actors representing the key figures in Caja Madrid – all male, of course – XNET guided us through a complex scheme of corruption, self-enrichment, and revolving doors between politics and finance.
In Greek tragedy, the characters suffer irrational divine curses and cannot escape their fate. In contrast, Hazte Banquero tells the story of a modern, man-made crisis that could have been avoided – had the protagonists shown any moral constraints. The plot is so gripping because all the events described really took place, although, the more details emerge, the more unbelievable it all seems. Yes, bank supervisors and top employees of Caja Madrid did have ‘black’ credit cards for unlimited spending. Yes, the bank did transfer money to ‘charitable’ foundations of all political parties in Spain, including the far left. Yes, Caja Madrid did sell floating rate stocks to thousands of inexperienced customers, making them believe they were fixed-rate. All this really happened. All theatre audiences have to suspend disbelief, to accept the ‘reality’ of the play. Watching Hazte Banquero, you had to suspend disbelief to accept reality itself as real.
In fact, unlike most foreigners, the general public in Spain is familiar with many of the facts around Caja Madrid and its successor Bankia, presided by Rodrigo Rato. But one of truth’s weaknesses is that it’s easily forgotten, set aside while we deal with more urgent everyday duties. Hazte Banquero reveals the truth in the data – and it helps prevent it from being forgotten. The play reenacts truth in front of us, makes us laugh, feel shocked and outraged, and this emotional connection is what guarantees that truth will not be forgotten any more.
Hazte Banquero has a double goal. First, it shows what happened, so that it will not happen again. This is the awareness-raising task. Secondly, it seeks justice and exposes people who should assume responsibility for their actions. The members of the audience change from being passive witnesses of their personal crises to being active participants in a quest for justice. The play functions as a record and a warning sign, a forensic analysis and a protest march.
Leaking data is a risky political act. Performing that data, turning numbers and words into feelings, is politically and artistically dangerous. Hazte Banquero manages to be a powerful, entertaining play with an serious message. It succeeds both in its artistic and political goals. But ultimately, the XNET artists do not distinguish between the two. As citizens we need to act in order to prevent corruption and irresponsibility. This is why XNET organized a crowd-funding campaign to finance their continuing prosecution of bank executives. As citizens, we too must act, in the sense of perform, and reach out to others and make our causes known. Theatre becomes a form of political action, a way to bring together people and inspire them to act on their destiny.
By seeing the bankers as protagonists on stage, citizens understand better the real-life bankers who, in a famous ad campaign, encouraged them to “become bankers” – and then defrauded them. Stripped of their illusions and armed with information, citizens can identify with the bankers on stage. Stripped of their impunity, once-untouchable bankers identify with ordinary citizens in real life. They are put to trial and they face the consequences of their actions. This change of roles is not welcome to anyone involved. But it is necessary.
The trial and the play are two faces of one process of citizen engagement initiated by XNET. On the 23rd February 2017, Miguel Blesa was sentenced to six years imprisonment, and Rodrigo Rato to four and a half, on charges related to the black credit cards scandal. They both appealed to the Supreme Court and are currently not in jail thanks to their ‘exemplary’ conduct during the trial. We still don’t know whether self-organized citizens will manage to change the end of this play of privilege and impunity we all know too well. But whatever happens, the premise of the play has changed. From secondary characters in our society, citizens have become protagonists and taken centre stage. Who could imagine this?
Julia Rone is currently finishing her PhD at the Department of Social and Political Sciences at the European University Institute, Florence. Her research explores social mobilizations against free trade agreements, with a focus on framing and diffusion of ideas. In addition, she studies hacktivism, digital disobedience, and struggles in defense of Internet Freedom.
With thanks to Simona Levi and XNET for permission to include photographs from the production.
Participatory art projects can fail for the same reasons that all projects. The bigger causes – inexperience, incompetence, lack of imagination, ego – lead to smaller and more specific ones, such as poor planning, inadequate resources and personality clashes. But participatory art projects can also fail for a reason that is specific to the practice – they fail when they don’t know how much importance to place on the art.
The inner tension of participatory art – what makes it restless – is having more than one objective. Artistic creation is balanced with other goals, such as education, wellbeing, community development, social inclusion or even peacebuilding. Each project is a unique coalition of organisational and personal interests. Everyone knows that things will happen differently than if they were working alone – it’s that difference that makes the project worthwhile. But they want to achieve their own goals, so success depends on getting the right balance between everyone’s interests. The vitality of participatory art comes from walking the tightrope between social and artistic purpose.
A focus only on artistic goals, at the expense of other issues, risks producing a kind of ‘painting-by-numbers’, in which the non-professionals simply fulfil the directives of professional artists. The result might be aesthetically satisfying. It might be appreciated by its audience. It might even be enjoyed and valued by the participants. But in the end it’s just another artistic product that is unlikely to change individual lives or social conditions. One sign of a failed participatory art project is the feeling that it could have been done better by the professionals working alone.
But neglecting art to focus on social objectives is equally risky, though not because art can’t be used to serve such purposes. The arguments against ‘instrumentalisation’ are mostly flawed and self-serving. But if you want to use art for a social purpose it is only logical to respect the tool itself. Unfortunately, people often agree to use a new approach and then try to apply it like the existing ones with which they are familiar. But art does not work – to take an obvious example – like education. It reaches people differently and makes fast, unexpected connections. If you force it to fit accepted norms and approaches, you undermine its effectiveness and the value of using it.
Art is often seen as a way to engage teenagers facing difficulties in education, work or at home and it can be a lifeline at this age. By helping young people gain new personal, social and practical skills through supportive creative activity, art projects can permanently change lives. But those results are unlikely to appear if the art being offered is mediocre or boring and the processes are the familiar ones of school. After all, it’s because existing provision doesn’t reach them that these young people need something different, more challenging and more inspirational.
Placing a high value on the authenticity of an artistic process need not entail high costs or following the norms of the mainstream art world. What matters is that the artists leading the project are ambitious, imaginative and serious; that they have a depth of knowledge and experience to offer; that they set high standards for the work and expect everyone to meet them, in their own way; that they believe in each participant’s unique ability and will not rest until they have helped the person to find it; that they want to make art in which everyone, including them as professional artists, can take justifiable pride.
The work with young offenders done by Movimento de Expressão Fotográfica (MEF) has all these qualities but depends on the simplest and cheapest of resources: homemade pinhole cameras. Between 2014 and 2016 MEF worked in six young offenders’ institutions in Portugal on a project called Este Espaço Que Habito (‘This Place I Live In’). Each participant made a cardboard pinhole camera to a design by MEF, before selecting nearby places that were meaningful to them to photograph. The processed images were collected in hand-made journals in which the young people reflected on the meaning of these places in their lives. The journals were personal documents, representing a new sense of self-awareness and reflection for their maker. They were the record of a life in progress made – and to be continued by – the person living it.
Making a pinhole camera (MEF)
Making a photograph (MEF)
Making a photograph (MEF)
Making a journal (MEF)
‘Este Espaço Que Habito ‘ Movimento de Expressão Fotográfica (2016)
But the work was also shared with public audiences in the press and through exhibition. A selection of images from each institution was digitised for use in light boxes and presented in local galleries. Nearly 200 young people took part in the project and their response to the experience has been overwhelmingly positive. By returning to the simplest form of photography, in an age of digital plenitude, the artists helped the young people appreciate the value of slowing down, of feeling what they were experiencing and thinking about the meaning of the images they made. The materials were insignificant but the process was serious and demanding, opening the participants to a rich potential for personal change. This was possible because of the calibre of the artists involved and the importance given to art in the project.
Este Espaço Que Habito (Exhibition)
Este Espaço Que Habito (Exhibition)
Este Espaço Que Habito (Exhibition)
Este Espaço Que Habito (Exhibition)
Este Espaço Que Habito (Exhibition)
Este Espaço Que Habito (Exhibition)
The art was a means to social change in this project. The management of the young offenders institutions was concerned with the rehabilitation not the creativity of the people who took part. But the project’s success lay in its clear focus on making art that had integrity and spoke both to its creators and to a wider audience. With their eyes always on that prize, everyone involved was able to move confidently along the tightrope. The artistic quality of the work was not an incidental aspect of the project’s success: it was the reason for that success.
Farnham is a handsome market town in Surrey, an ancient place with a castle, Roman roads and hill forts. It is 45 miles from Joan Littlewood’s East London, where she fought to build The Fun Palace, but it seems a world away. London changes continually – the Olympic Park has replaced the post-war wastelands where artists and local kids once explored other worlds – but Farnham is continuity England, evolution not revolution. It’s hard to imagine Littlewood liking it much – if she ever came here.
But appearances can be deceptive, though we forget it. After all, Farnham sided with Parliament in the Civil War, and it was the home of William Cobbett, the great radical writer and MP, who would surely have enjoyed arguing with Littlewood. It’s also a town with a long interest in arts and crafts. Farnham School of Art opened in 1866 and it continues as part of the University for the Creative Arts. And in 1961, just as Joan Littlewood was imagining her Fun Palace, Farnham opened a free museum in a fine Georgian house on West Street. With its emphasis on local history, the Museum of Farnham probably felt more palace than fun to its first visitors. Still, in common with Littlewood, the museum wanted to involve people more in culture. The question is how.
Half a century later, these two strands of thinking about the place of art in people’s lives have come together: the Museum of Farnham is hosting a Fun Palace, one of almost 300 taking place this weekend across Britain and abroad. A group of volunteers has been given the run of the Garden Gallery, an attractive wood and glass building that is the museum’s education space, and everyone is welcome. When I get there, at lunchtime on a blustery Saturday afternoon in October, I can already hear happy voices.
There’s so much going on that it has spilled out onto the verandas, where children are busy making hand prints on paper. Round the corner, Bridget Floyer asks visitors to add themselves to a map of local creativity, as she develops her ideas about participatory art. Inside, Farnham Art and Design Education Group are hosting a Big Draw event; elsewhere people cluster round tables to make things with clay or from melted plastic. There are lots of families, and if the parents are often helping their kids, they’re having no less fun. Generous provision of refreshments makes a hospitable atmosphere as people move from one activity to another. Farnham’s radicalism is not forgotten either. I talk with members of the local Amnesty International group and sign petitions about refugees and political prisoners in distant lands.
Meanwhile, in the main building, Wendy Richardson is talking about Joan Littlewood with Christine Jackson, who worked with her on Bubble City in 1968 and many other projects. Richardson has just completed a film, ‘In the Company of Joan’, which would have been shown too, but there are too many people having too much noisy fun to make that possible so, recognising what’s important today, that plan has been abandoned. Still, we get more time for conversation and it’s an inspiring reminder of the power of imaginative play and the creative freedom that can be found – paradoxically –when no one is interested in you. Christine Jackson evokes a world in which people do things because they want to, not to fulfil a carefully worked out strategy or meet a funder’s targets. And if that includes setting out to build a hovercraft, well – why not, if that’s what the young people are excited to do? At worst, you’ll discover that it’s beyond your resources, but you can have a fantastic time finding that out, and you might find what it is that you can do. This is art, science, creativity. This is fun.
And this is the heart of the Fun Palace idea: the spirit of saying ‘Yes!’.
That’s not naïve or careless. But it is the opposite of trying to persuade people to be interested in your ideas, a common trap for arts policy today. It’s knowing that good work begins with our desires – something that artists usually remember where their own work is concerned. We all have to adapt our desires to reality, but that’s the essence of learning: me in the world, exercising agency and discovering its limits and consequences.
The photos I took at Farnham are pretty dull. Photography struggles to capture a creative workshop because what matters is invisible. What matters is the experience people get when they mould a piece of clay for the first time, or discover what oil pastel does, or see plastic cord soften with heat and become capable of making an expressive line, your line, that you drew. That experience cannot be shown. Six people sitting in a room, talking about long past events, make for a dull photograph. But being there, being part of the conversation – that was a great experience.
Art is only ever a route to experience of connecting minds. The object – painting, book, recording – is easily fetishized but it only matters because it has been charged by its maker(s) with the power to communicate, move, teach… Because the object is photogenic and tangible it is easily mistaken for what is happening, for art itself.
A Fun Palace is not in children’s drawings or happy faces: it is in discovering that you too can be an artist, and that no one else can be the artist you can be. That is an empowering experience, whatever you make of it.
…Part 3 tomorrow
I’m very grateful to Carine, Alex and everyone I met at Farnham Fun Palace for their welcome, openness and encouraging me to have fun…
One of the best things about a restless art has been seeing just how much great community art is happening across and beyond Europe. I’d no idea of the quality and variety of work in Greece, Spain, Portugal and Egypt and it’s not hard to see a link between this energy and the multiple challenges people now face there. That sense of discovery was reaffirmed by conversations I had last week with cultural activists from Morocco, Tunisia, Italy, Serbia and elsewhere. They were meeting in Casablanca for a cultural collaboration programme called Tandem Shaml, sharing ideas among themselves and with local artists. Among other projects, I learned about:
ADAM – an alternative media project for young people in rural Tunisia, now working with Bokra Sawa in Marseille, orange farmers and academics to explore the impact of climate change in the Mediterranean region;
Agora – an Egyptian organisation set up in the early days of the 2011 revolution that organises community festivals and women’s micro-enterprises in jewellery-making; its project with Tillt in Sweden is using social media to highlight the sexual harassment of women.
L’Boulevard – a Moroccan music organisation that has created studios and concert spaces on an industrial site and promotes the country’s leading rock and alternative festival, giving a platform to thousands of young musicians from the region.
El Madina– an Alexandria-based community theatre and training organisation involved in street carnival, festivals and development projects, currently working with people in the Karmouz district of the city.
It’s hard to give much sense of this work in a few lines, particularly since the projects are still under way. You can talk about the risks involved, the artists’ imagination or the commitment of people whose principal resource is their time, but those are just part of what’s involved and it’s all rather abstract. Some of this work will appear as case studies here or in the project book next year.
Involving people who have experienced migration across the Mediterranean, Lampedusa Mirrors is community theatre at its most serious and moving. The problems of migration are complex and difficult. But art of this quality cuts through rhetoric, self-interest and deceit to affirm the common humanity that requires us to solve them. The film takes 25 minutes to watch, but anyone with an interest in community art or the realities of migration will find their time amply rewarded.
A performance about bodies and long lives opened Spain’s annual conference on social inclusion and the performing arts in A Coruña’s Teatro Rosalía Castro this week. Created by Mariantònia Oliver, with older women in Mallorca, including her own mother, ‘Las Muchas’ was moving and joyful. Oliver integrated her own solo performance with video of those who’d inspired the work and performances by nine local women who made the piece for this performance. Like all good participatory art, it was a shared creation that could only exist because of what each person contributed to it. A gifted choreographer might make a work on this subject without involving non-professional dancers in their 70s and 80s – but not this one.
It was a great start to this event, which has grown from a one day conference in 2009 to three days of talks, workshops and performances involving people active in participatory and community arts from across Spain. A glimpse of this a couple of years ago, in Seville, alerted me to the artistic energy of Southern Europe. In Spain, Portugal, Greece and elsewhere, artists are working with vulnerable and marginalised people: migrants, the unemployed, prisoners, people with disabilities and others. Perhaps it was chance that the first Jornada happened at the height of the financial crisis, but it doesn’t feel like it. Unemployment haunted the second evening’s performance, ‘Vida Laboral‘ (Working Life), developed by Claudia Faci with three local men who gave extraordinary performances drawing on their lived experience.
If this creativity has a new energy, it also has long roots. In Barcelona, Xamfra has been making inclusive music in Raval for 15 years, while TransFORMAS has been making theatre with communities in the city for almost as long. Here in Galicia, Grupo Chevère was founded in1988 and has been evolving a practice that has moved steadily towards ever stronger community ownership, as in their recent production, by, with and about shopkeepers. Among the newer organisations is Teatro de Consciencia, which uses theatre as a space to develop empathy and reconciliation.
There are many similar experiences, from institutions to small companies, among the 250 conference participants. I kept meeting people who were thrilled to discover that they were part of a community – even a movement. They share a passion for community art, a creativity in approaching it and a readiness to imagine afresh how it is done and why. No one should underestimate Spain’s economic crisis, nor its impact of every aspect of life here. But these artists are responding with imagination, courage and hope. In doing that, they are helping renew participatory arts practice for European societies also in need of renewal.
With great thanks to Eva Garcia and all the organizers who welcomed me with such generosity, helped open doors and interpret what I couldn’t understand.
Una actuación sobre los cuerpos y las largas vidas abrió la conferencia anual de España sobre la inclusión social y las artes escénicas en el Teatro Rosalía de Castro en A Coruña esta semana. Creado por Mariantònia Oliver, con mujeres de edad en Mallorca, incluyendo a su propia madre, ‘Las Muchas‘ se movían contentas. Oliver integra su propia actuación en solitario con vídeos que inspiraron su trabajo y actuaciones con nueve mujeres locales que hicieron la pieza para esta actuación. Como todo buen arte participativo, era una creación compartida que sólo podía existir debido a lo que cada persona contribuyó a ella. Un coreógrafo dotado podría hacer un trabajo sobre este tema sin la participación de bailarines no profesionales con 70 y 80 años – pero no lo conocemos.
Fue un gran comienzo para este evento, que ha pasado de un día de conferencias en 2009 a tres días de charlas, talleres y actuaciones que asocien a profesionales de las artes participativas y comunitarias de todo España. En un vistazo que dí hace un par de años, en Sevilla, me alertó de la energía artística del sur de Europa. En España, Portugal, Grecia y en otros lugares, los artistas están trabajando con las personas vulnerables y marginadas: los inmigrantes, los parados, los presos, las personas con discapacidad y otras personas. Tal vez fue casualidad que la primera Jornada ocurriera coincidiendo con la crisis financiera, pero no se siente como del mismo modos. El desempleo rondaba la propuesta de la segunda noche, ‘Vida Laboral‘ , desarrollado por Claudia Faci con tres hombres locales que presentaron una actuación extraordinaria basándose en su experiencia vivida.
Esta creatividad no solo tiene una nueva energía, sino que también tiene raíces largas. En Barcelona, Xamfra ha estado haciendo música desde el Raval durante 15 años, mientras que TransFORMAS ha estado haciendo teatro con las comunidades en la ciudad por casi el mismo tiempo. Aquí en Galicia, Grupo Chevère fue fundada en 1988 y ha ido evolucionando de una práctica que se ha movido constantemente una identificación cada vez más fuerte con la comunidad, como en su producción reciente, por, con y sobre los comerciantes. Entre las organizaciones más nuevas está Teatro de Consciencia, que utiliza el teatro como un espacio para desarrollar la empatía y la reconciliación.
Hay muchas experiencias similares, de las instituciones a las pequeñas empresas, entre los 250 participantes de la conferencia. Seguí el cumplimiento de las personas que estaban encantados de descubrir que eran parte de una comunidad – incluso un movimiento. Comparten la pasión por el arte comunitario, la creatividad para acercarse a esta y la disposición para imaginar de nuevo cómo se hace y por qué. Nadie debe subestimar la crisis económica de España, ni su impacto en todos los aspectos de la vida. Pero estos artistas están respondiendo con imaginación, coraje y esperanza. Al hacer esto, están ayudando a renovar la práctica de artes participativas para las sociedades europeas también en necesidad de renovación.
Con un excelente agradecimiento a Eva García y todos los organizadores que me han acogido con tanta generosidad, ayudado a abrirme las puertas e interpretar lo que no podía “entender”.
Heba El-Cheikh is a creative producer and arts manager based in Cairo who has been working with young people and communities since 2009, initially with The Journey and now with Mahatat for Contemporary Art. We met a few years ago and I’m glad to call her a friend. We’ve talked about the challenges of doing community-oriented arts work in her country, but I’ve not yet had a chance to see the work myself. This piece, written to accompany an exhibition of art aftert the ‘Arab Spring’ that has just opened in Vienna, gives a glimpse of how young artists are reimagining community art in a changing world.
Audiences and Art in the Public Space in Egypt: Why we do what we do
‘What do you mean by “show”?’
The question hung in the air, with a mix of confused and aggressive facial expressions and a clueless, empty gaze that I received from the young officer on this warm winter afternoon in Port Said (a city situated along the Suez Canal in Egypt).
It all started when we decided to expand our activities, thanks to a generous grant that we received from Drosos to support our program ‘Access to Art’ and its three projects: ‘Art of Transit’, ‘Mosaic’, and ‘Face to Face’. During the ‘Art of Transit’ project we began to organize a quarterly artistic and performative tour of the cities in which we operate: Greater Cairo, and three large cities in the Delta Region, namely Port Said, Damietta, and Mansoura.
Our first tour, in October 2014, was intended to be as visible as possible, no longer a low profile presence in the streets (as was our previous strategy). We brought together the Oscarisma marching band with the giant puppets of Al Kousha for the puppets to make a ‘spectacular’ entry into the streets of the city, bringing joy, happiness and entertainment to passers-by.
Our first march in Port Said was quite successful. The mayor of the neighbourhood was positively surprised by the ‘quality’ of the show – so much so that he recommended we slightly shift the location of the second march, which was intended to be performed at Souk Ali, a local market on the outskirts of the city. The new location was a few blocks away from the market, in a square. Just our bad luck this was in front of a police station – a location, among other sensitive buildings such as hospitals and mosques, we would usually avoid while performing.
They didn’t have to move from their place: all big security trucks, vehicles, jeeps, a dozen special forces in their black outfits and masks, officers, and soldiers of lower ranks were there surrounding us, looking at us with astonishment. Our bouncers and security men with big muscles, and our volunteers on the ground, stepped away, leaving me to deal with the security. I found myself, in my pretty blue dress, with a big smile, delicate voice, and the polite tone of a well-behaved lady, trying to explain to the young officer what we were doing. I had to repeat ‘It’s a show, a performance, you know, puppets, music … you know, old street art? Aragoz? Storytellers?’ over and over in an effort to make them understand what we were doing. I even started to point at the musicians and performers wearing their instruments and puppets in order to explain what our ‘show’ was about.
Finally, I showed him, confidently and firmly, the permit that we received from the neighbourhood authorities. Luckily this was the only authority who consented to hand us a written permit. It is worth mentioning that previous to this tour, organized in October 2014, we had never opted to secure any permits to perform in the streets of Cairo, or Damietta. We were aware from the start that the ‘permission’ and ‘consent’ of our audience and the community living in the space/neighbourhood, (such as coffee shop owners, workers, and vendors), was more important than a permit from the authorities. With the new geographical expansion of our tours, we started to secure permits, as they are important in our times, (especially considering the escalation of events after June 30th 2014), to provide a safe environment for performers, crew, and audiences.
Nervously, the young officer walked away, talked to his chief officer on a walkie-talkie, and then gave me the phone to talk to the chief. I repeated the whole story, again with no success: the chief also did not understand what I was talking about. Five minutes later he came down himself, read the paper carefully, and finally agreed that we could perform, (but not on the market street because ‘it’s a dangerous place full of drug dealers’). Instead, we were allowed to perform on the city’s main street, escorted by a few dozen officers and special forces.
Amused, I followed the march and surprisingly overheard the same young officer talking to his wife on the phone, proudly telling her that he was now providing security for some artists playing in the street. At that moment, I realized this officer might never have attended a live show in his whole thirty years of life – no theatre, no music concerts, nothing! Rien! Nada! This officer is like any other Egyptian citizen who has little-to-no access to art because of centralization, and/or social and geographic exclusion.
The cultural scene in Egypt is mainly divided between two kinds of organizations: state institutions affiliated with the cultural ministry, such as the opera house in Cairo and the national theatres, and the culture palaces and clubs. With the nationalist politics of Nasser in the 1960s and the 1970s, art and culture became more and more centralized, only diffused and produced in the governorates by the Ministry of Culture and its institutions. These state-sponsored institutions dominate the culture scene in the governorates outside Cairo and Alexandria.
Back in early 2000, independent organizations such as TownHouse Gallery, CIC (Contemporary Image Collective), and Al Mawred Al Thaqafy (Culture Resource) appeared on the scene and, with older commercial galleries such as Mashrabia and Karim Francis Galleries, pleaded for quality in art and independence from the corrupt state system. Most of these organizations, galleries, workshop spaces, and exhibitions venues are located in Downtown Cairo. Both state-sponsored spaces and the independent art scene remain inaccessible to the majority of the Egyptian population as they are either geographically, or socially exclusive.
However, there are still a few established organizations located in Cairo that have a community outreach approach, such as Artellewa, Alwan wa Awtar, and El Takeiba art spaces.
In late 2011, my partners and I founded Mahatat for contemporary art, as we aimed at making art visible in the daily life of Egyptian citizens and more accessible and decentralized from the capital by organizing art in the public space and community engaged art projects. Now we realize that by organizing artistic interventions in public spaces, not only do we offer an entertaining, fun, and reflective experience to the audience, but we also create a reference, a new collective image and memory about certain art forms that existed in the public sphere that we are restoring from neglect and dust.
Although the accessibility of art was always, and since the very beginning, Mahatat’s main objective and goal, this reality struck me strongly and deeply.
Six months later! ‘They make us feel like human beings.’
In March 2015, six months later, we organized a new tour in different locations in the four cities. This time we performed classical music and songs. The programme was a mix of famous opera songs and Arabic oldies, recognized and loved by the whole Egyptian audience. All this was performed on balconies in the respective cities and in a historical ruined palace in Mansoura city. We were there to witness the pure amazement of the audience, watching and listening to the prima donna come out onto the balcony and sing her soprano melodies, accompanied by a violinist and percussionist, all wearing pyjamas and robes. I was enchanted to see the little kids dancing, amazed watching this handsome singer in his tuxedo coming out of the balcony of the ruined Red Palace (al ahmar) in Mansoura, transformed by light and music into a magical fairy palace.
We would have been very content with just the sparkles in the eyes and the enchantment of the audience, but we were also much rewarded! With the constant presence of security escorting our performances with their cars and sirens (to protect us), we were surprised as the rigid faces of the state’s security officers (amn markzy) grew softer and tenderer, song after song. They had also joined the lines of our audience. And this was a new victory for us.
An old man stopped by and asked about the performance, who had organized it, and what these people were doing. While walking around and mingling anonymously with the audience, as well as the rest of Mahatat’s crew, Omar El Motaz Bellah, the director of the Teatro independent theatre group, replied, ‘You know haj (old man), they are offering opera and oldies songs to the people.’ The old man nodded, looked down, and then said ‘God bless them! They make us feel like human beings.’
In the idealism and simplicity of this statement, the old man summarized the essence of why we are doing this. He might have answered all the questions, the insecurities and uncertainties we had struggled with throughout our four years of working in the streets – the questions we have been trying to find answers to. His statement has simplified all the justifications we had repeated in front of our families, friends, donors, audiences, and even politicians.
We believe that art does not need to have a certain message, it is not about educating people nor cultivating them, but it is all about providing moments of pure joy, and reflection. Art restores life and is rooted in the core essence of human rights and dignity.
Heba El-Cheikh is a cultural manager and freelance writer living and working in Egypt. After studies in French, translation and journalism, she gained a Masters in Arts Management at Utrecht University, with a thesis on Community Arts Evaluation Practices in Egypt (2015). In 2009, she co-founded The Journey Cultural Group in Alexandria, working with young people on creativity and critical thinking, and in 2011, Mahatat For Contemporary Art in Cairo.
 The ‘Aragoz’ is a traditional hand-made wooden puppet that used to wander public spaces, usually during traditional festivals, ‘Mouled’, and weddings. Aragoz stories usually criticize one or more aspects of Egyptian life and culture, represented by their reckless and satirical character.
‘If art isn’t about people and humanity, then what is it about?’
Hazel Tilley BBC Newsnight
The annual Turner Prize, established ‘to celebrate new developments in contemporary art’, is known for controversy. The debate usually turns on the question of whether the prize winner has exhibited art, rather than the more meaningful one of how good it is. This year has been different because the question being asked is whether the prize winners are even artists. And it is mostly being asked within the art world.
Assemble is a group of young architects, designers and activists who work with people to revive the places where they live. In just four years, they have created spaces for theatre and cinema, playgrounds and workshops. Some of their work produces objects with obvious aesthetic intent, such as decorative fittings, but mostly it’s either very practical or social, intangible and also, in its way, very practical. It is a living example that there is no need to choose between use and ornament. It is also a great example of community art.
Assemble was shortlisted for Granby Four Streets, a neighbourhood renewal project in Liverpool. Brought in by the Community Land Trust to work with residents who have battled for years to save their homes from neglect or demolition, the group have applied their skills to creating a sustainable vision for the area rooted in its tangible and intangible cultural heritage. So far, 10 houses have been renewed and a community workshop established in which people can make things that will contribute to the renovation of more buildings.
Crucially – though this isn’t mentioned in most of the current media coverage – Assemble describe themselves as ‘build[ing] on the hard work already done by local residents’. This was not some bright idea by a group of artists but creative support for what a community had already achieved. In that sense, though the form and approach belong to 2015, the work in Granby Four Streets echoes that of many community artists working in the 1970s and 1980s. The words of Joseph Halligan, one member of Assemble, could equally have been said 40 years ago:
‘I think the idea that art is something that can only be created by someone that declares themselves an artist is maybe not the best thing. I believe that anyone can create art, and art should be for everyone.’
What makes community art practice different – and important –is that you don’t need to be an artist to do it, even to initiate it: you just need to make art. That is still a surprisingly controversial idea.
This report from BBC Newsnight gives an outsider’s perspective on Assemble’s work.
And this blog post gives a glimpse of the same experience from the other side. I tip my hat to Assemble and to the residents and campaigners of Granby Four Streets: prize winners all.